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Polonnaruwa is one of those rare places where you can feel the spirit of Sri Lanka’s past within every moss-covered ruin.
Part of Sri Lanka’s famed Cultural Triangle, Polonnaruwa boasts ancient ruins and scenery that rival its neighbor (and immediate predecessor as the island’s capital city), Anuradhapura.
Unlike Anuradhapura (as well as nearby Sigiriya), Polonnaruwa’s ruins are in much better shape.
Anuradhapura was the Sinhalese capital for 1,300 years from the 3rd century BC to 993 AD, while Polonnaruwa served as the capital of the South Indian Chola and Sinhalese kingdoms for a much shorter period during the 11th-14th centuries. Polonnaruwa’s ruins haven’t had to withstand quite the test of time that Anuradhapura has.
Polonnaruwa also has more of a quiet, reflective feel to it than Anuradhapura, which comes alive with rituals and religious ceremonies on a daily basis.
The two cities are distinct enough to be worth separate visits. Read on to learn more about what to see in Polonnaruwa, and what to know before you go.
Polonnaruwa’s ruins are an absolute marvel.
They are huge in scale, mostly concentrated in a small area, generally well preserved, free to roam, and delightfully uncrowded.
It’s worth it to check out the archaeological museum in Polonnaruwa before exploring the ruins.
And not just because you buy your entrance tickets there ($25 USD).
The museum showcases artifacts that were found around the ancient ruins, but the coolest displays are the scale models of what the structures probably looked like when they were first built.
Unfortunately, photography isn’t allowed inside the museum, so you’ll have to make a mental comparison of the replicas against the ruins. Still, the replicas set great context for the scale of the buildings that are now reduced to rubble.
Biking is the best way to get around.
Especially when your co-pilot is a cute French guy named Vincent that you met on the bus. (Three cheers to solo travel and making friends along the way!)
We managed to cover the full site in about four hours, with ample time for exploring the ruins.
Renting bikes enabled us to get from one place to another quicker, which is critical in Sri Lanka’s oppressive midday heat. Just remember to park your bike in the shade or you’ll be in for a scalding surprise when you mount it again! Trust me, I found out the hard way.
Polonnaruwa’s ruins get more impressive the farther you go.
If you can make it to the end of the main stretch of the ancient city, you will be greeted by these large Buddha statues cut from a single giant slab of granite.
The sculptures at the Gal Vihara (stone temple) are grand in scale: The reclining Buddha is 46 feet long! They all have unique features that showcase the mastery of Sri Lankan sculptors.
It’s worth it to stop at every site. There is always something unexpected waiting to be discovered.
Most tourists gathered at the most famous sites like the Quadrangle and the Royal Palace, which left the rest of the ruins for us to explore in relative solitude.
We found this view of the Rankoth Vehera at one empty site.
And hung out with these monkeys.
These stairs mossy stairs were just as green in person. (#nofilter)
This man quietly tended to his work in the middle of nearly a century-old ruin.
Polonnaruwa is happily tourist-light.
The tourists we encountered were largely European. Vincent and I giggled every time we passed by someone speaking French, because every other person we encountered spoke French.
The photo below shows the most people we encountered in one place the entire day.
The city itself is nothing to write home about. Except for the tank.
Parakrama Samudra, Polonnaruwa’s reservoir, is a scenic area that is perfect for a sunset walk. Just watch out for the mosquitoes that descend at dusk.
The mosquitoes are prolific…
…as I mentioned above. And they are especially bad at dawn and dusk. Polonnaruwa was where I got my first taste of Sri Lanka’s epic mosquito population, as I had escaped largely bite-free from Anuradhapura and Sigiriya. It became difficult to enjoy tea or a meal outside with all of the mosquitoes around, which was a real shame.
…and the drivers are…aggressive.
I should preface that this isn’t confined to Polonnaruwa, and “aggressive drivers” is a relative term. But I was genuinely scared for my life as I biked along the edge of the road with large speeding buses passing just feet from my right handlebar. (Still, it’s well worth it to bike.)
Despite my discomfort, it’s clear that Sri Lankan drivers are quite aware of pedestrians and cyclists on the road. But that doesn’t make it any less unnerving to have a vehicle ten times your size pass within mere inches of you. One false move and, well, you get it.
Be sure to visit Polonnaruwa, but there’s no need to spend more than a day there.
It’s possible to see the ruins in a matter of hours without rushing, and the reservoir is nice for a leisurely walk. Aside from that, you won’t find much else in Polonnaruwa. If you’re looking to see as many sights as possible on your trip, spend a day in Polonnaruwa and then move on to nearby sights such as Minneriya or Sigiriya. (Read this first if you plan go on a safari in Minneriya.)